This blog entry was inspired by Mark Kornell’s query about my approach to waxing. I’m no expert on wax finishing and would never represent myself as such. I enjoy the learning and improvement process, and that is where I take the most reward from working with wood. Wax is a simple and easy to maintain finish which seems to live and age gracefully with the workpiece rather than trapping it in time. Furniture and guitars (my other problem) live with us as companions, picking up experience and character.
My methods are distilled from a mix of what I’ve picked up from others and feedback from testing, experimenting, building off previous results and establishing personal working processes from circumstance. They’re by no means perfect, however despite any glaring flaws or inefficiencies they seem to get me to an end result which I am happy with. It works harmoniously with the piece and maintains simplicity. Input on these methods is always useful, and sharing is of course caring.
I perhaps created a little confusion in the previous post over how an initial wax application looks. The surface photo was a finished item; our living room side table (the “two day table”!). That is also Birch, albeit a mix of wild (as opposed to “tame” or “domestic”?) and highly flamed stock.
The wax I consistently go back to (Liberon Black Bison paste wax) is a dye wax which is relatively forgiving, or at least it seems more workable and predictable than some other products I’ve encountered (Briwax being one). Having tried out most of the colour range, the “Dark Oak” seems to compliment Birch nicely. It results in a finish that is dark without blowing out the wood’s natural appearance, and is warm enough to soften a room naturally. I can’t comment on how Maple reacts since I just haven’t tried it yet. The “Antique Pine” is also fantastic for the satin semi-raw look that oils don’t quite seem to achieve.
To cut it short, first application of this dark wax looks like hell on Birch and especially so on figured pieces. So much so, it could be dissuading for most as the workpiece looks irretrievably wronged. I severely dislike compliments on the workpiece whilst it is in this stage, much like a car painter would be irritated by compliments on paint before the orange peel is addressed!
Guidance suggests that new and/or dry wood needs two layers, which is an understatement. Two is definitely a minimum, with three-four over a period of weeks being a transformative difference.
In my opinion, this is the time to get it right going forward. The first layer is taken to the wood with ~000 wool thick. Not so much so that it is wasteful, but wet enough that the layer isn’t thin and insipid. Soaked toast, not scraped. Wet enough that the heat of your fingers through the gloves (the solvents in this wax really irritate my skin so I go two layer in case one breaks) remelts the wax and you can wipe excess around like melted butter. After this layer has been massaged in and becomes matte quickly, I wipe it off and buff excess clear before it can truly set up.
The annoying blotchiness and contrast between end/rising/falling grain dye takeup on Birch always benefits from elbow grease. The first layer thrown on and worked into the surface shows these problem areas readily. End grain is always a regular culprit for inconsistent colour from insufficient sanding, followed up by minute scratches and material inconsistencies that otherwise evade initial inspection. The piece is taken back to sanding with 240grit (rarely 180 if I really dropped the ball) primarily to fix revealed issues and then an overall flatting with 320grit. The paper loads up like crazy, and lots of the wax is taken off the immediate surface. This feels more akin to grain filling on a guitar body, which is probably where I brought this process from.
(Whilst I do appreciate a film finish over a beautifully-textured piece of wood, my waxing with Birch is done with the intention of creating a consistent warm glowing surface that your fingers want to glide over. The most consistent thing people have commented on is how much they want to touch the things I make, which I think should be encouraged. The tactile interaction with natural materials is soothing and adds a harmonious element.)
Birch has a very tight and more or less closed pore structure. Nonetheless, the surface still has pores which the wax and fine dust from sanding combine to fill up. At least, that is the intention and what seems to happen. It is difficult to tell and perhaps irrelevant since the objective is achieved, especially with areas presenting off the flat. I refuse to let any sanding machines near the piece. This is all intensive hand-sanding since it needs 100% observation rather than a casual approach. Everything is inspected and dealt with on a case-by-case basis. It soaks up time, but pays itself back later.
By this point the surface has a very light cast from the initial waxing with pores significantly darker and filled out. Problem areas like blotching, furry grain from anywhere that had been wetted (glue cleanup for example) or physical defects like scratches (especially cross-grain near seams and details) are fixed. The same process as the initial guide coat is followed to soak the surfaces, again massaging in the wax with gloved fingers. The difference is that I will now use the rags from the previous waxing (now fairly useless for actually removing wax) to clear excess wax from an area, and then burnish fresh wax into that area with 00000 steel wool. The “dirty” cloths fail to lift all of the excess wax, leaving enough to keep the surface working. A fair amount of pressure is used with the steel wool to help burnish the wood itself with fresh wax as the lubricant. These areas are then massaged with a little wax from my fingers before moving on through the piece. This is extremely messy and tiring work. If at any point I am unhappy with how the finish is developing, I will consider going back to the sanding stage.
Depending on the size of the piece, where I started is more or less ready to clean and buff out by the time the entire piece is through. From here it is many many clean cloths (plus many clean gloves) buffing up the dried wax to a semi-gloss finish. A week later I’ll burnish in another layer of wax with 00000 wool and buff out again. It is this third application that does the trick. By this point any chatoyance and flecking off the quarter will glow. The wood should not be dry and dead-looking. Contrast between the parts of the wood that take up dye from the wax and those that do not should be far lower, with a natural softer look to the wood. Some pieces refuse to comply fully, but on the whole being consistent around the workpiece doesn’t allow these to stand out as faults, but as “integrated variance”.
Controversially, I think the Maple Gamble House bedroom furniture looks a little sub-par for G&G. It’s just my opinion and never having seen them in person I perhaps have less basis for judgement. They do look blotchier and less refined than pieces around the rest of the home:
Certainly, my approach with dark wax to Birch produces similar results off the first application (the one from hell) whilst continued working brings it to a level that satisfies me.
I’d love input from the experienced finishers here on Lumberjocks. My methods are by no means perfect and refinement of one’s techniques and rationale are essential to being a developing woodworker.
-- "What can be asserted without evidence can be dismissed without evidence"